During Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Washington last week, much of the emphasis was on how much additional financial and military support the U.S. will be willing to extend to his country. But much more critical to the future of Ukraine than whether it get heavy weapons from the U.S. are laws that the Ukrainian Parliament adopted shortly before his visit, on September 16, 2014. These laws will not only grant significant autonomy to the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, but will also give amnesty to pro-Russian separatists that have been responsible for killing fellow Ukrainians. On the same day, the Parliament also ratified an Association Agreement with the European Union.  The fanfare over the Association Agreement was used as a façade to cover up the hasty passage of laws that most Ukrainians oppose. Despite President Poroshenko’s claim that this will help his country strengthen its "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence,” this controversial legislation will just continue, and probably worsen, the current conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

These laws resulted from “peace” negotiations that led to a cease-fire during which more Ukrainian servicemen have been killed. The contentious laws provide the two war-torn regions autonomy, and a one year delay in the implementation of the free trade agreement with the EU. However, it is unclear whether autonomy will be good enough for the rebels. Andrei Purgin, one of the leaders of the Donetsk People’s Republic, said he does not recognize any laws adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament. The leader of Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky, stated that these laws meet only some of the rebels’ demands. The Ukrainian Parliament has met much of the separatists’ demands for greater local autonomy even though the separatists have ignored the cease-fire put into place last week – a step backwards from a credible peace deal.


Moreover, this self-rule is set to be in place for only three years. What happens afterwards is dangerously unclear. Will the region just fall back into disarray? Will there be a referendum to decide the further status of those regions? This uncertainty is what makes this autonomy so dangerous. Vladimir Putin will not just let go of these regions. Most likely, he will work to stoke the fires of separatism while promoting close ties between Luhansk and Donetsk and Russia. When these three years of self-rule expire, it is not unlikely that Putin would get the little green men in Donetsk and Luhansk to call for independence or unification with Russia, just as he did in Crimea.

Furthermore, this high degree of autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions make it more difficult for Ukraine to develop economically and move forward with further integration into the European community after the one-year delay. Kyiv will most likely have to cater to the wishes of these two regions. Under Putin’s patronage, they will resist any actions that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU. In this scenario, Poroshenko will have to decide whether to abandon the two eastern regions and move the rest of the country towards Europe, or to continuously spar with the two autonomous regions while depriving the rest of the country of the European future that it so desperately seeks.

All this is very similar to what happened in the Transdniester region as a result of the Kozak Memorandum situation in neighboring Moldova. The Transdniester region is one of several post-Soviet “frozen conflicts.” The Kozak Memorandum – proposed by Russia in 2003 – suggested that Moldova become a federation. Transdniester would send its (pro-Russian) elected representatives to the Moldovan legislature, who would then block Moldova from building closer relations with the West. The president of Moldova rejected this memorandum, choosing to seek closer ties with the West while essentially leaving the Transdniester region behind. Moldova has ratified the Association Agreement and implemented visa free travel with the EU. Transdniester, however, has since stagnated and became a center for criminal activity and human trafficking. Adopting the Moldovan model in eastern Ukraine risks duplicating this case. 

The passing of the self-rule and amnesty legislation is a step backwards for Ukraine’s democracy. This was vividly demonstrated during the voting, when the main screen in the Parliament that displays how parliamentary factions are voting was turned off. The leaders of the Ukrainian legislature were too ashamed to publicly support these laws. Many Ukrainians were understandably outraged at this hidden process, which was all too similar to how the “dictatorship laws” that further empowered then-President Yanukovych and escalated the Euromaidan protests were passed by this same Parliament in January. The Ukrainian people who have courageously fought for their future in the last nine months deserve much better, starting with a transparent vote on such important laws.

The Ukrainian people also deserve justice. The amnesty law adopted by the Parliament does not provide any. It essentially legitimizes murder by pardoning the majority of pro-Russian rebels, except those responsible for “grave crimes” and the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17. This law ignores the 3,000 people already killed in the fighting. If this is not a “grave crime,” then what is?

While Ukrainian civil society is outraged at these laws and the Parliamentary farce of their passage, not surprisingly, Russia appears to be satisfied. The laws formalize a separate status for Luhansk and Donetsk, give amnesty to the separatist fighters, and post-pone closer economic relation with the EU. They secure Russia’s access to these regions, with their critical access to the coastline, weapons manufacturing, and other heavy industry, and ensure that Ukraine cannot decisively turn towards Europe. For Putin, it is a “step in the right direction.” The same day the controversial laws were passed, the Russian defense minister announced that Russia must increase the number of troops on the Crimean peninsula. One can only wonder what Russia’s next step in the right direction will be.

Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a public policy research organization. Garapiak, a research assistant at CAP, is a  Ukrainian national.